DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Iran's supreme leader Sunday backed the government's decision to raise gasoline prices and called angry protesters who have been setting fire to public property over the hike "bandits," signaling a potential crackdown on the demonstrations.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's comments came as authorities apparently shut down the internet across Iran to smother the protests in about two dozen cities and towns over the rise of government-set prices by 50% as of Friday.
Since the hike, demonstrators have abandoned their cars along major highways and joined mass protests in the capital, Tehran, and elsewhere. Some protests turned violent, with demonstrators setting fires and there was also gunfire.
It remains to be seen how many people have been injured, killed or arrested. Authorities on Saturday said only one person was killed, though other videos from the protests have shown people gravely wounded.
State television address
In an address aired by state television Sunday, Khamenei said "some people had died and some centers destroyed," without elaborating. He called violent protesters "bandits" who had been pushed into violence by counterrevolutionaries and foreign enemies of Iran.
However, he made a point to back the decision of Iran's relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani and others to raise gasoline prices. Gasoline in the country still remains among the cheapest in the world, with the new prices jumping up to a minimum of 15,000 rials per liter of gas - up 50% from the day before. That's 13 cents a liter, or about 50 cents a gallon. On average a gallon of regular gasoline in the U.S. costs $2.60 by comparison.
Khamenei ordered security forces "to implement their tasks" and for Iran's citizens to keep clear of violent demonstrators.
That seemed to indicate a possible crackdown could be looming. Economic protests in late 2017 into 2018 were met by a heavy reaction by the police and the Basij, the all-volunteer force of Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.
Protests largely peaceful
The protests have put renewed pressure on Iran's government as it struggles to overcome U.S. sanctions strangling the country's economy since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers over a year ago.
Though largely peaceful, the latest demonstrations devolved into violence in several instances, with online videos purporting to show police officers firing tear gas at protesters and mobs setting fires.
While representing a political risk for Rouhani ahead of February parliamentary elections, they also show widespread anger among Iran's 80 million people who have seen their savings evaporate amid scarce jobs and the collapse of the national currency, the rial.
Cheap gasoline is practically considered a birthright in Iran, home to the world's fourth-largest crude oil reserves. Rouhani had been pushing for higher prices to offer payments to the poor for months. While the hike was eventually expected, the decision to raise gasoline prices still caught many by surprise and sparked immediate demonstrations overnight.
Iranian internet access meanwhile saw disruptions and outages Friday night into Saturday, according to the group NetBlocks, which monitors worldwide internet access. By Saturday night, "real-time network data show connectivity has fallen to just 7% of ordinary levels following 12 hours of progressive network disconnections as public protests have continued across the country," NetBlocks said.
"The ongoing disruption is the most severe recorded in Iran since President Rouhani came to power, and the most severe disconnection tracked by NetBlocks in any country in terms of its technical complexity and breadth," the group said. The websites of state media outlets appeared affected by the outage early Sunday.
Protester chants seen in online videos mirrored many from the economic protests in late 2017, which resulted in nearly 5,000 reported arrests and at least 25 people killed. Some criticized Iran's spending abroad on Palestinians and others while the country's people remain poor.
The tensions in Iran came as weeks of anti-government protests have engulfed Iraq and Lebanon, two Mideast nations that are home to Iranian proxies and crucial to Tehran's influence abroad.
Iran long has suffered economic problems since its 1979 Islamic Revolution cut off the country's decades-long relationship with the U.S. Iran's eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s followed, further straining its economy.
The collapse of the nuclear deal has exacerbated those problems. The Iranian rial, which traded at 32,000 to $1 at the time of the accord, fell to 122,600 to $1 in trading on Saturday. Iran has since begun breaking terms of the deal as it tries to force Europe to come up with a way to allow it to sell crude oil abroad despite American sanctions.